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Instant Gratification - Jake Avnet Is Only Asking For A Minute Of Your Time

Posted By Spike Friedman, Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Jake Avnet of Indigenous Media is a savvy digital producer; his work is defined by bringing a cinematic quality to online shareable content. He’s also a canny businessman, responsible for some of the most innovative brand integrations for filmed content on the web. But what comes across right away from meeting him is his passion for telling stories about interesting people. Sure he’s excited to talk about his history creating digital content and the business of 60 Second Docs, the online series he produces that has led to partnerships across a range of industries. But what he really wants to tell me about are the Weed Nuns.

“Weed Nuns?” I ask. “Weed Nuns,” Avnet replies. The Weed Nuns are a group of women in the Central Valley of California who proselytize the use of marijuana and create medicinal products for terminal cancer patients. These are passionate businesswomen focused on helping people. And with 60 Second Docs, you can learn their story in, well, just about a minute. Although other videos produced under the 60 Second Docs banner have more hits, the Weed Nuns documentary perfectly encapsulates the series’ ideal. It looks great, it tells a true story that has a couple of twists, and it is as digestible as it is thought-provoking. “Each one is a different story,” says Avnet. “It’s different characters, it’s a different journey. Hopefully people find joy in that.”

This instinct toward telling joyful stories about quirky individuals has allowed 60 Second Docs to become a thriving business with a range of brand partnerships. And each of these partnerships is rooted in real human stories. “We’re outsiders, we’re storytellers,” says Avnet, “and that’s basically our biggest asset.” Partners have ranged from Mike’s Hard Lemonade to the investment firm BlackRock. And because 60 Second Docs tell stories of interesting people, they have been able to work with GoFundMe to create a new synergistic home for their content. 60 Second Docs finds the most fascinating stories on the crowdfunding platform and tells those stories with a cinematic eye that the typical fundraiser would never have the capacity to produce. This shines a light on people in need and turns a brand integration into a way of doing good. “We’re people-oriented,” explains Avnet, “in terms of us thinking about how we can give back. This felt like it was an amazingly direct way of doing that.”

60 Seconds Docs teams with Mike's Hard Lemonade for a LA Pride parade float and Proud Dad campaign

Other engagements, including a promotional push alongside the release of BlacKkKlansman, appear more traditional, but still leverage the unique approach of 60 Second Docs. With BlacKkKlansman, they produced a short documentary that told the real history behind the film, centering it on Ron Stallworth, upon whom the film’s story was based. By blending interview footage, archival footage and footage from the movie, 60 Second Docs produced content that both promoted the film and led to a more profound level of audience engagement. The combination of archival footage and scenes from the Spike Lee film worked in concert to tell a compelling story and deepen the stakes of the movie for the viewer. And it did that in just over a minute, generating hundreds of thousands of views across a range of platforms.

Because 60 Second Docs is by its very nature “snackable” content, it is able to live in multiple areas, which means the material Avnet produces is platform-agnostic. Making films that are optimized for online consumption can mean chasing views via the algorithms of behemoth platforms like Google and Facebook. That’s not the approach Avnet takes. “You see a lot of publishers play this game where they kind of are like, OK, Facebook loves VR? We’re a VR company now,” says Avnet. “We try to stay out of that fray.” For 60 Second Docs, that means eschewing the norms of the shareable Facebook video. 

Avnet’s cinematic instincts pushed him to produce more sophisticated material, going beyond user-generated content to engage up-and-coming filmmakers interested in telling new stories. “We went the opposite direction,” says Avnet. “We’re making films. They’re really short, but they are films. They hopefully have a bit of a cinematic eye. They’re a little more premium, and we think that will drive deeper engagement.”

Although the 60 Second Docs model does not require a lowest-common-denominator approach to chasing clicks, Avnet still uses digital platforms to optimize the product being created. And because 60 Second Docs are by their nature very short, Avnet and his team can test multiple cuts of a documentary with the public to see which people find more engaging. “It’s a rapid-fire focus testing process,” Avnet explains. This can happen very quickly because the content is being consumed very quickly. The team can infer which cut of a documentary the public prefers and then push a preferred option out across a range of platforms.

This instinct toward using the online space to create premium content comes naturally to Avnet. He grew up in the industry. His father, Jon, is a director and producer and is the co-CEO at Indigenous. But Jake also came out of film school during the early era of digital production. He learned how to produce quickly, on a budget, and across a wide range of forms including web series, music videos and advertisements. As studios became interested in moving into digital, Avnet had both the chops in the space and the cinematic eye needed to thrive. “The world grew up around us,” Avnet says of his experience in the industry.

This led to a partnership with YouTube under their Original Channels Initiative called WIGS, spearheaded by Rodrigo Garcia, now co-CEO of Indigenous media. WIGS operated like both studio and network—developing, producing and distributing new premium content, including Blue starring Julia Stiles and Eric Stoltz. “That was a really, really cool experience where it just became this crash course in all aspects of producing,” says Avnet.

Understanding digital means understanding the specifics of what makes certain content work on certain platforms. That is fundamental to the work Indigenous produces; their name is a play on the idea of being native to a medium. And no project is more indicative of Avnet’s understanding of the digital space than their release of Sickhouse on Snapchat. This found-footage horror film was designed to blur the lines between fiction and reality. “If you’re making a movie for Snapchat,” says Avnet, “you need to make it in a way that people want to watch it on Snapchat.” Sickhouse, though, is not just a Snapchat-native horror film. It is a well-made horror film that happens to conform to the norms of Snapchat.

With 60 Second Docs, this push toward short and high-quality content reaches its apex. But that doesn’t mean the project does not have room to grow. 60 Second Docs is already a global enterprise, having produced shorts on every continent on the planet. However the team is currently cutting deals to expand its reach. That means more than simply exporting what has already worked in the United States. It means adapting the work to appeal to different cultures. “It’s important to be thoughtful about what stories you are telling,” says Avnet of the challenge of balancing translating content that has worked well in the domestic market, versus expanding by producing content that is market specific.

Growing the scope of 60 Second Docs also means looking at ways of expanding the content to leverage what it is already doing well, while finding new ways to dig deeper into these stories. This has led Avnet and Indigenous to partner with Howie Mandel’s Alevy Productions on a television version of 60 Second Docs. The show will allow viewers to go deeper into these stories via interviews and features. Of the project and working with Avnet, Mandel says, “I came to 60 Seconds Docs as a fan because I loved their content. [Jake’s] approach makes the evolution into traditional film and TV very clear and we see unlimited potential.” 

Avnet’s push into this new space between traditional and digital media also includes Five Points on Facebook Watch. Five Points is a teen drama with a focus on social issues. Co-produced with Kerry Washington, the show places high-end content on a nontraditional platform to reach an audience that is increasingly eschewing traditional platforms. “Tasked with finding a way to combine the best of digital and traditional filmmaking to bring premium storytelling to an emerging platform,” says Washington, “I cannot think of a collaborator who would have brought a more thoughtful, resilient, innovative and visionary approach than Jake.”

This is a natural expansion for Avnet, because at the end of the day, he is interested in producing stories about fascinating people. And if a move to a more traditional medium means we get more than a minute with the Weed Nuns, it feels like that’s a win-win.

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